Dec 2, 2022 - Politics & Policy

FBI director warns of possible "influence operations" via TikTok

The TikTok app as seen in the App Store on an iPhone on Oct. 5, 2022. Photo: STR/NurPhoto via Getty Images

FBI Director Chris Wray warned Friday that TikTok is controlled by a Chinese government that "doesn't share our values" and could "use it for influence operations."

The big picture: The popular video-sharing app has served as a point of concern for U.S. officials for years. Despite the platform's move to distance itself from its Chinese parent company, national security worries continue to hound TikTok, especially as Chinese President Xi Jinping enters his third term.

Why it matters: The main source of alarm is the fact that the Chinese government holds the key to the app's recommendation algorithm, Wray said Friday in remarks at the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy.

  • This control "allows them to manipulate content, and if they want to, to use it for influence operations." The Chinese government also maintains the ability to collect user data, he noted.
  • "All of these things are in the hands of a government that doesn’t share our values and that has a mission that’s very much at odds with what’s in the best interests of the United States. That should concern us."

Catch up quick: TikTok began to dominate U.S. platforms in 2017 after private Chinese company ByteDance acquired U.S. app and combined it with TikTok.

  • It quickly became the target of the federal government, with the Trump administration threatening to ban the app.
  • Concerns included Bytedance's alleged ties to China's government and military, along with criticisms about the firm's violations of children's privacy.

Yes, but: TikTok doesn't operate inside China. ByteDance instead offers a similar version of the app to Chinese customers.

  • TikTok Chief Operating Officer Vanessa Pappas testified at a Senate hearing in September that the company doesn't store U.S. user data in China and doesn't share any with Bytedance. Chinese government officials have no access to it, she said.
  • Oracle also began vetting TikTok's algorithms and content moderation models earlier this year to ensure they aren't manipulated by Chinese authorities.

The big picture: The firm has nevertheless appeared to unite tech factions against it, Axios' Ina Fried writes.

  • Its growth has been astounding even in the tech sector. TikTok surpassed 1 billion users in just over 5 years last year — a milestone it reached many years faster than Facebook, YouTube and Instagram.
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